Which GPA do colleges look at?
Whether your child is applying to college soon or you’re just planning ahead, you likely know that grade point average (GPA) is one of the factors colleges consider when making admissions decisions. You might, however, have questions like “What’s the difference between weighted and unweighted GPA?” or, “Which one do colleges care about?”
Maintaining a high GPA is probably one of the most challenging responsibilities of your college-bound high school student. It requires consistency, deliberate study, but also a little bit of strategy.
You may have heard, for instance, that colleges want both great grades from applicants and a rigorous course load. But what if your child can earn straight As taking regular classes, rather than earning Bs on the AP or IB track? Should they play it safe and go for the easy A?
Let’s take a step back. Sure, a strong GPA is a key part of any college application, and it’s certainly one of the first elements that any admissions officer will check when reviewing your child’s file. But there are several other factors that admissions officers are considering when presented with this number.
You may have heard about “holistic admissions,” a process by which applicants are evaluated for qualities outside of grades and SAT or ACT scores. This means that colleges are looking to see if your child has made the most of the opportunities available to them. Colleges want to see that your child has challenged themselves academically by selecting courses that align with their strengths, interests, and career goals. A student whose high school has twenty AP classes available is not treated the same way as a student whose high school has zero or one.
In other words, a 4.0 vs. a 3.8 vs. a 3.5 means nothing without knowing your child’s course history, your child’s high school’s course offerings, the academic opportunities available to your child, etc.
So, yes, the number matters—but so does the context in which that number was achieved.
Difference between weighted and unweighted GPA
Your child’s GPA is the average of how well they perform in their classes. But it’s not necessarily a simple mean (i.e., mathematical average). The GPA can also represent how difficult those classes were (i.e., how much your child challenged themselves by going as far as possible in a given field).
If you’re the parent of a younger high school student and you take nothing else away from this article, take this: encourage your child to select challenging courses in their areas of interest. For example, if your child loves science and aspires to become a doctor, AP Biology would be a good option if their school offers it.
But wait. Won’t encouraging your child to challenge themselves come at the risk of a lower GPA? What if your child likes AP biology but might earn a B on the harder track? Why not let them make an A in regular biology, even if they keep their eyes closed while dissecting those frogs?
Luckily, high schools across the nation have come up with a way to address this dilemma. Your child will probably have two numbers that matter on their college application: their unweighted GPA, which is the simple mean of all their grades over four years, and their weighted GPA, which takes into consideration the difficulty of each course.
In a standard, unweighted GPA, an A receives a 4.0, a B receives a 3.0, and so on. In the unweighted system, coursework difficulty is not accounted for. This means that an A in AP Biology counts the same as an A in regular biology, and both of those count the same as an A in a physical education course.
By this system, in theory, a student who took all the easiest coursework and breezed through their classes could end up with a 4.0, possibly surpassing the students who took on the heavy lifting of enrolling in 5 AP classes in a single semester.
Do colleges look at weighted or unweighted GPA?
Remember that colleges aren’t looking at GPAs out of context. After checking the GPA on your child’s high school transcript, the very next thing an admissions officer does is dig into the listed courses. Within seconds, they’ll be able to assess the rigor of your child’s coursework and immediately contextualize your child’s GPA compared to those other piles of transcripts stacked on their desks.
The student who took all the easy courses and earned a 4.0 won’t get into an Ivy League school. However, the student who earned a 3.7 taking the most challenging courses offered while balancing extracurricular commitments is a competitive candidate.
That said, not every college takes such a holistic approach to admissions. Larger public institutions, because they often receive a far greater number of applicants than small, liberal arts colleges do, often sort applicants based on whether they meet a minimum GPA requirement.
For example, the University of North Carolina requires a minimum GPA of 2.5 (weighted) to be considered for admission. These minimums don’t guarantee admissions; on the contrary, they limit the admissions committees’ holistic assessments to only those applicants whose GPAs are above their minimum standard.
Further, most scholarships at these types of schools require a GPA above the general admissions minimum. So, whereas a 2.0, whether it’s a weighted or unweighted GPA depending on the school, might qualify your child to apply, they may need a minimum of a 3.0 to qualify for financial scholarships. But remember: these are minimums, so the rigor of your child’s course load is still considered when the admissions teams evaluate transcripts.
With all this pressure placed on GPA, it should comfort you to know that most high schools that offer varying degrees of course difficulty to their students also calibrate their GPAs accordingly. This calibration is known as the “weighted GPA,” and it typically works on a 5.0 (rather than 4.0) scale.
Though not every high school calculates their weighted GPAs the same way, they do communicate their methods to colleges. If your child’s school has nontraditional approaches to grades or doesn’t have a standard practice for weighting, you can talk to your child’s guidance counselor and request that they provide as much information as possible in the counselor recommendation that they write for your child.
If your child took courses at a community college and wants to see that weighted accordingly on their transcript, this again should be brought to the guidance counselor’s attention, as it will likely need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis (unless your child’s school already has a defined system in place, which they would communicate to colleges).
In a typical weighted GPA, AP or other advanced classes correspond to a higher number, so when they’re averaged in with the less difficult classes, they contribute more strongly to the average, thereby pulling the overall GPA higher. For example, an A in an AP biology class could equate to a 5 in your child’s GPA, whereas an A in a regular biology class only counts for 4.
Therefore, your child is rewarded for challenging themselves, both in the numerical GPA and also when (especially when) the admissions officer delves into your child’s course history.
How to Calculate Unweighted GPA
Let’s get into the nitty gritty and show you how to calculate your child’s unweighted GPA. Here’s a hypothetical course history with equal credits associated with each class:
AP Biology: A
AP English: B
AP US History: A
AP Calculus: A
Earth Sciences: A
American Literature: B
World History: A
Now, let’s crunch the numbers:
Student 1 gets a 4.0, 3.0, 4.0, and 4.0 – those numbers summed and divided by 4 (the number of courses) gives student 1 an unweighted GPA of 3.75.
In an unweighted system, an A is an A and a B is a B (regardless of course difficulty,) so student 2 would end up with the same GPA of 3.75. Both appear equal in this system, but they’re not. The college admissions officer will take note of Student 1’s rigorous course load and weight it accordingly when making her decision.
How to Calculate Weighted GPA
A typical weighted GPA works on a 5.0 scale, so:
Student 1 gets a 5.0, 4.0, 5.0, and 5.0 – those summed and divided by 4 (number of courses) gives student 1 an unweighted GPA of 4.75.
Student 2, due to taking easier courses, gets a 4.0, 3.0, 4.0, and 4.0 – 3.75 GPA.
Student 1 wins, both numerically and in the eyes of the admissions officer.
However, let’s hypothesize that student 1 did less well in her coursework than student 2 because the courses she took were tougher. Let’s say Student 1 earned the following grades:
AP Biology: B
AP English: C
AP US History: B
AP Calculus: B
In a weighted GPA, Student 1 would result in a 3.75 GPA (4.0, 3.0, 4.0, and 4.0 summed and divided by 4), equaling Student 2’s GPA despite having technically lower letter grades.
As you can see by this calculation, the weighted system plays in the favor of those students who challenged themselves with their coursework and rewards them with higher numerical contributions per letter to their overall GPA.
In some cases, schools might grade on a 100% rather than a 4.0 or 5.0 scale. But no matter how your child’s grades are calculated, an admissions officer will consider course rigor.
Which should your child report to colleges, a weighted or unweighted GPA?
Your child likely won’t get to choose which GPA colleges see. Your child’s high school has likely long established what kind of grading system they report to colleges. In the day of AP classes, most will use a weighted GPA. The ones that don’t, however, will communicate clearly with the college admissions offices that they’re using an unweighted system, so you don’t have much to worry about in either case.
If you do get to choose, it’s almost always in your favor to choose the weighted GPA because it reflects both the earned scores and course difficulty.
What if your child’s high school doesn’t offer AP courses?
Let’s face it: not all high schools are created equally. Some high schools don’t offer AP courses, and so their graduates—the best of whom boast a 4.0—will be forced to compete with other applicants with a 5.0.
Again, let’s take a step back and remind ourselves what it is that college admissions committees really care about: whether your child made the most of what was available to them.
If your child took the most challenging courses available, they’ve demonstrated drive and commitment to their education. A counselor recommendation can help make that clear by placing your child’s accomplishments in the context of the school—for example: “Johnny is the first student to take every honors class our school has to offer.”
If your child is a freshman or sophomore planning for future coursework and you see that your high school doesn’t offer AP courses, look for offerings outside of the school setting. For example, can your child enroll in an online AP class or self-study for the AP exam? Can they take a class at the local community college?
Even if those alternatives won’t contribute to your child’s numerical GPA due to their high school’s unweighted system, admissions officers will appreciate that your child went above and beyond to further their education. It will go a long way in proving to the admissions committee that your child took the onus onto themselves to follow their passion beyond limitations. That’s the kind of grit and initiative an admissions officer wants to see.
GPA matters but it’s only a piece of the admissions puzzle. Encourage your child to take challenging courses that align with their strengths and interests. Complement those passions outside the classroom with a unique extracurricular profile and a stellar personal statement, and your child’s application will speak for itself, far beyond the limitations of that nagging little number posted at the top of your child’s transcript.